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Blanc de Blancs: looking beyond Champagne

Blancs de blancs are the lightest and most elegant of Champagnes, their vivacious, cool mineral character making for a particularly fine apéritif. Now the style is yielding some of the most compelling fizz right across the world, says Essi Avellan MW

Words by Essi Avellan MW

Ferrari Trento vineyards with clouds
The Collection

The name blanc de blancs translates simply as ‘white of whites’ – a white wine made from white-skinned varieties. A peculiar term like that could only have been born in a region like Champagne, where production has historically been dominated by darkskinned varieties, and where blancs de blancs are invariably made from Chardonnay. Even today, one rarely sees the term in Spain, for example, where the varieties used to make white Cava were traditionally all white. But several other regions have adopted the term to indicate a pure Chardonnay style. Based on climate, soil and winemaking, these blancs de blancs come in a multitude of different styles.

A Champagne blanc de blancs is often lemony and linear, even bony in structure, with noticeable acidity, whereas a warm climate counterpart will generally be richer and rounder, with a ripe fruit profile. But differences are notable even just within Champagne’s own borders. Some of its Chardonnays come with Chablis vibes of lean, tight minerality, whereas others show more muscle and fruity power. Adding oak or extended lees aging to the equation yields a resemblance to fuller white Burgundies, while, over time, prime examples reveal Chardonnay’s ageing potential via toasty notes and a caressing, creamy character.

Montgueux creates exotic, structured blancs de blancs
The most majestic Chardonnay region outside the Côte des Blancs is the hillside of Montgueux, just west of Troyes. (Photo: Michael Boudot)

Although 30% of Champagne is now planted to Chardonnay, the variety remains a relative newcomer, having only been rooted in its chalky terroirs since the mid-19th century. Chardonnay added freshness and finesse to the blends, which until then were dominated by dark-skinned varieties. Yet it was not until the 1920s that Eugène-Aimé Salon’s prestigious monocru bottling made the Chardonnay-only style famous – and even then, it wasn’t until the 1971 vintage that the term ‘blanc de blancs’ graced the Salon label. By then, the 1960s had brought a greater profile for the term, via the launch of grandes marques’ prestige cuvées from Taittinger (whose first vintage of Comtes de Champagne came in 1952) and Ruinart (whose Dom Ruinart arrived in 1959).

When it comes to inspiring newcomers around the sparkling wine world, the triumph of England is surely impossible to beat

Champagne’s Chardonnays come in myriad expressions, depending on which parts of the region they hail from. The chalkiest locations, with east- or southeast-facing slopes, tend to favour the variety. Success on such sites has meant that the Côte des Blancs is now planted almost exclusively (97%) to Chardonnay, leading its growers to produce blanc de blancs almost by default and making the style vastly more popular than its blanc de noirs dark grape counterpart.

The Côte des Blancs’ most prestigious origins – the four grands crus that follow each other on the gently sloping ridge running north to south – each have their particularities. A blanc de blancs from Cramant is capable of incredible finesse in a seemingly light style. Due south, Avize is prized for the completeness and harmony of its wines, perfectly combining elegance and intensity. Further south still, Oger delivers even more fruity power and strength. But it is in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger where blanc de blancs arguably reaches its greatest puissance and longevity, as seen in such legends as Salon and Krug’s Clos du Mesnil.

The immense success of Côte des Blancs Chardonnay has boosted the variety’s plantings also in the more southernly Côte de Sézanne, a region where Chardonnay appears richer and rounder due to its heavier soils. Softer and more approachable earlier, the wines make ideal blending partners, cleverly used in their non-vintage blanc de blancs cuvées by houses such as Palmer & Co and Ruinart. Sézannais growers, too, such as Marie Copinet and Domaine Collet, are making increasing noise with their deliciously fruity and supple bubbles.

Nyetimber Chardonnay vineyards
Chardonnay seems to do particularly well in the UK’s knife-edge climate

Several other subregions also specialise in Chardonnay, with Monts de Berru, just east of Reims, and Vitryat, further southeast, both up-and-coming spots. But the most majestic Chardonnay region outside the Côte des Blancs is the hillside of Montgueux, just west of Troyes. Dubbed the Montrachet of Champagne by the late Daniel Thibault of Charles Heidseick and Piper-Heidsieck, the region creates exotic, spicy and structured blancs de blancs that are in great demand by many négociants. Thus far, one grower, Jacques Lassaigne, has almost single-handedly established a name for this special terroir, though the area has the capacity for many more to emerge; Champagne’s intended expansion incorporates several villages in the vicinity.

Chardonnay-dominant areas aside, one should not forget the blanc de blancs potential of Montagne de Reims, typically famed for its Pinot Noir. Its east-facing villages such as Trépail and Villers-Marmery produce firm and elegantly spicy blancs de blancs, with A Margaine and Henriet-Bazin among the go-to names. There are even some Pinot Noir grands crus that can produce majestic Chardonnay; Sillery and Verzy are worthy of inclusion in the Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs blend.

team at drappier champagne
Drappier is one of the Champagne houses producing blanc de blancs from varieties other than Chardonnay

Even if almost all of Champagne’s blancs de blancs are Chardonnays, this is by no means obligatory. Blancs de blancs can be made of any permitted white-skinned variety. Petit Meslier, Arbane and Pinot Blanc make up less than 0.3% of Champagne plantings, but one can find blanc de blancs cuvées including them, especially in the Côte des Bar – witness that of Domaine Alexandre Bonnet or Drappier’s Quattuor Blanc de Quatre Blancs.

Beyond Champagne, just as the world’s best sparkling wines have all taken inspiration from the region – be it by adapting the traditional method or using the classic Champagne varieties – so, too, are producers now harnessing the blanc de blancs formula to build a global recognition for the style.

Italy has been at the forefront of the move, with Chardonnay dominating the vineyards of Lombardy’s Franciacorta, where a rich and textured style excels in the gently bubbling version called Satèn (which may include up to 50% Pinot Blanc). Meanwhile, Trentino’s radiantly fruity and fresh Trentodoc, which comes from high-altitude Chardonnay vineyards, is such a haven for the variety that the area’s leading producer, Ferrari (see lead photo) relies on pure Chardonnay expression in most of its wines.

Jacques Lassaigne in truck
Montgueux is a shining light of Champagne, especially in the hands of Jacques Lassaigne (Photo: Michael Boudot)

Farther afield, South Africa might not possess a naturally favourable climate for sparkling-wine making, but Graham Beck’s creamy-rich Blanc de Blancs is one example of exciting cap classiques. It’s also a shame that more US fizz doesn’t cross the Atlantic, since California has so much to offer, be it Taittinger’s yeast-complexed Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs or Schramsberg’s opulently fruity and vinous version. But of all the New World contenders, Tasmania’s House of Arras makes a blanc de blancs so complex that it is hard to rival.

Domaine Carneros in California
It’s a shame more US fizz doesn’t cross the Atlantic, says Avellan, since California has much to offer, as seen at Taittinger’s Domaine Carneros

That said, when it comes to inspiring newcomers around the sparkling wine world, the triumph of England is surely impossible to beat. Chardonnay seems to do particularly well in the UK’s knife-edge climate, and since the onset of a more modern approach, the country’s lean, vibrantly lemony and zingy – even razor-sharp – blancs de blancs have built a great following. Now we are seeing exciting new ventures popping up in even more unexpected places (Carassia of Romania and Midalidare of Bulgaria have already established some success with their blancs de blancs). Long may it continue…